Bennett-gate And The Politics Of Grading Schools

Last week’s midair disintegration of a high-flying apparatchik in the movement known as education “reform” is still making headlines in local press and the national media. Tony Bennett was a hero of the national movement bent on reshaping public education along the lines of consumerism and marketing imperatives. The state where he burnished his reputation, … Continue reading “Bennett-gate And The Politics Of Grading Schools”

Last week’s midair disintegration of a high-flying apparatchik in the movement known as education “reform” is still making headlines in local press and the national media.

Tony Bennett was a hero of the national movement bent on reshaping public education along the lines of consumerism and marketing imperatives. The state where he burnished his reputation, Indiana, was dubbed by a Beltway conservative belief tank as an “Ed Reform Idol”. His policy of grading schools A-F based on an algorithm of test score data was embraced by political leaders in the Republican and Democratic parties.

Now revelations of a cheating incident in Indiana, where Bennett and his team altered a school grading scheme so a charter school run by a campaign donor changed from a “C” grade to an “A,” have prompted him to resign from leading the public school system in Florida, where he landed after losing a reelection bid in Indiana the previous year.

People who like the idea of evaluating schools and educators on simplistic grading systems in the name of “accountability” were quick to label Bennett’s transgression as “not that big of a deal” or excusable because of his “legacy.”  Bennett himself attributed revelations of his transgressions to “political enemies.”

But anyone who has given support to failed school reformers like Bennett and their ideas – in particular the notion of using test score results to grade schools and label educators as “ineffective” – should think more cautiously about what they’ve signed on to.

So What Exactly Happened?

Writing at the blog site for the New American Foundation, Ann Hyslop – a reform enthusiast herself, it should be noted – has the widely acknowledged best description of how Bennett gamed the system he created.

According to Hyslop, it was a “frantic” process in which Bennett and his aides found a way to change the favored charter school’s grade by creating a “loophole” so the school’s troublesome “high school data were thrown out” and the school could rise to an A.

Interestingly, as Hyslop noted, the loophole that was created for Bennett’s favored charter was denied to two traditional Indiana public schools. As the Indianapolis Star  reported, the poor grades those schools received landed them in state takeovers by a charter school company, Charter Schools USA, an organization that eventually employed Bennett’s wife. Coincidence?

A quick take of the Bennett affair would be that here was just “one bad actor” working in a system whose integrity is still beyond dispute. That would be a mistake.

It’s All About The Quality Poverty

A thorough understanding of the Bennett affair should not stop short of taking into account the context of the reforms he pushed – in particular, the idea of grading schools “A” through “F.”

School grading systems have been sold to voters as accurate measures of school quality. Armed with such measures in a “choice” system, parents, we’re told, can go shopping for higher-rated schools, and bureaucrats can target lower-performing schools for shutdown or takeover by an agent, usually a charter school, who can “fix” the school.

But based on an analysis conducted by Matt DiCarlo  of the Albert Shanker Institute, the grading system devised for Indiana had more to do with the characteristics of the students served by schools than it had to do with giving parents and policymakers real insight into the effectiveness of the schools.

DiCarlo’s analysis showed, “Almost 85 percent of the schools with the lowest poverty rates receive an A or B, and virtually none gets a D or F.” Conversely, over half of the schools with the highest percentages of the poorest students received “an F or D, compared with about 22 percent across all schools.”

His conclusion, “as is the case with most states’ systems, policy decisions will proceed as much by student performance/characteristics as by actual school effectiveness.” (emphasis original)

“Under Indiana’s system, a huge chunk of schools, most of which serve advantaged student populations, literally face no risk of getting an F, while almost one in five schools, virtually every one of which with a relatively high poverty rate, has no shot at an A grade, no matter how effective they might be.”

DiCarlo also looked at the grading system used in Florida and concluded that it “does a poor job of gauging school performance per se.”

Since more advantaged students tend to score more highly on tests when they enter the school system, schools are largely being judged not on the quality of instruction they provide, but rather on the characteristics of the students they serve.”

Even when there are instances where Florida schools are being very effective in accelerating student performance (at least insofar as tests can measure it),” DiCarlo found, the state grading system is unlikely to identify them.

As with Indiana’s grading system, DiCarlo concluded that Florida’s “is a de facto system that metes bad grades onto schools serving children who are already bound to struggle in the system and gives a near free pass to schools that service students who are the least apt to struggle.”

It’s About The Kids Politics

The grading system invented by Bennett and his team in Indiana was mysterious from the beginning. As an op-ed by the editors of the Ft. Wayne Journal Gazette noted, “Educators well-versed in test scores and evaluation systems couldn’t make sense of it” at the outset. The column quoted an Indiana superintendent who told legislators in a letter last November, “It is not criterion based, it does not statistically make sense, it does not account for standard measure of error, it is unexplainable and difficult to understand, and it fails to comply with current law and administrative code.”

But state lawmakers intent on punishing public schools never heeded these warnings, and a state board hand-picked by the governor backed Bennett all the way – and in fact, still aims to roll out a new grading system in the coming school year.

Much like Indiana’s grading system proved to be, Florida’s system for grading schools has been subjected to overt manipulation more often than not since it rolled out in 1999 – most recently, in fact, under Bennett’s watch when he requested that 262 schools slated to earn an F be reduced to 108 schools instead. When the state board complied, even the board chairman who voted to change the grades didn’t think “the truth is being revealed in the current grading system,” but “trusted Bennett to fix the problem.” So much for that plan.

According to Florida education professor Sherman Dorn, the problem with “any system of labeling in education” is that “the boundaries of categories are somewhat arbitrary,” yet the arbitrary labels end up carrying all sorts of major consequences for the school and the students it attends to. What parent wants to send his or her child to an “F-rated” school?

The consequences of school grading systems are what catapult them from the realm of cold, calculation into the white, hot mess of politics. When the system is not being led by, in Dorn’s words, “a lot of smart people in shirtsleeves figuring out how to crunch numbers to identify exactly the schools that need help and the school that should be highlighted as great,” what we get instead is a crude lever that a few – the governor, a few legislators and bureaucrats – can use to portray themselves, or their opponents, as heroes or villains to the public.

The fact that Florida’s school grading system is driven to a great extent by politics is not lost on the local media. As the Palm Beach Post recently editorialized, “school grades are a hoax” that is being “politically-driven.”

Florida’s school grading system has in fact been dubbed by parent activist Kathleen Oropeza as “the big lie.” Oropeza, co-founder of, a nonpartisan Florida-based education advocacy group, wrote recently, “As parents, we teach our children empathy for others and the importance of fair play. How do we tell our children that although their grades are improving, their school is an F? How do we explain that a school grade is not true, but arbitrary?”

Dorn maintains that any state “stuck” with such a grading system as Florida’s can take measures to improve it. But wouldn’t it be wiser to not get “stuck” with one to begin with?

Nevertheless, these school grading systems have proliferated across the country.

Bennett Has Company

Bennett is hardly the first person to be a “reformer” turned faker.

As the Bennett scandal was going down, veteran education journalist John Merrow examined the results of “America’s most visible education activist” Michelle Rhee and found that the results of her reforms have been nowhere near the “success” that she and her boosters claim.

Despite Rhee’s well-oiled propaganda machine, her real track record, Merrow wrote, started to come to light “in March 2011 when USA Today reported on a rash of ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures on standardized tests and the Chancellor’s reluctance to investigate.”

But the test score erasures were just the tip of the toxic iceberg left in Rhee’s wake, as Merrow explained. Six years after Rhee and Kaya Henderson – a Rhee “deputy who “has stayed the course,” according to Merrow, – “DC public schools seem to be worse off by almost every conceivable measure.”

Not only have teaching and principal positions become a revolving door, central office staff has bloated, costs have increased, and a gaping achievement gap between minority students and their white peers has continued to expand and become the country’s worst example of inequity.

Nevertheless, Rhee’s ship sails on, buoyed by ever more largesse from the corporate foundations that favor her policies.

Interestingly, Merrow had to post his analysis of the Rhee failure on his own blog because he couldn’t find a press outlet willing to publish it – not a “national story,” one editor told him.

With the revelations of “Bennett-gate” now splashed across the national press – at a time when schools are not even in session – maybe now more journalists will be eager to expose the fake reforms of failed reformers.

13 thoughts on “Bennett-gate And The Politics Of Grading Schools”

  1. If there are corporate foundations underlying anything, it is only because there is money to be made somewhere by somebody. The morality, ethics and rationalizations perpetuated for its success, is only more of the Madison Avenue efforts to get money out of somebody.The best quality education of children is not included in the foundation of any of these schemes. The original school system in this country was set up to get children ready to take jobs with a business (corporation of the time). And how did education get into politics? The winner dictates what will be taught in the schools, how the children will be prepared to do what is wanted by the corporations to further their wealth. How is it the education system turns to corporations for the “code” on what is right, best and quality, when the corps’ only concern is getting a workforce under its control to maintain its status in this country. We need individual and creative thinkers, with insight and foresight for a country of people successfully living together, not pawns, yes-men and a population of sheep who will do what they are told, by whoever has the most money. Corporations should not set the “moral” code of quality for a country of people, when corporations are only about money and profit, NOT about people. Their goal is to increase their wealth by using people to do it. They will set up the education of the country for their purposes, not for people who want an ethical code that allows everyone equal opportunity and a good chance at a good life, because people hold more value than the profit anyone is trying to make off them.

  2. A lot of school districts have low-income children. That bevy of predatory political pedophiles, Congress, has sequestered millions away from early childhood education programs to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and to take money away from public schools and give it to religious schools to teach religion.

    What about opening schools from 7 AM to 7 PM and provide 3-meals a day; bathing and laundry facilities?

    And, since so many urban school districts have large numbers of homeless children, what about boarding schools for these homeless children? Private boarding schools have been a disaster in terms of both physical and sexual abuse.

    And why not extend the public school year to a two-month half day program providing remedial and enrichment classes for students during the summer months? Many low-income children have no where to go to occupy their time during the summer months that they’re out of school.

    Most school districts are heavily bloated with administrator. Why not put these administrators to work in schools with extended school days, in boarding schools and in schools during summer remedial and enrichment programs? Summer schools could also provide college preparatory classes for those students intending to go to college.

    1. Great ideas! You know the politicians are going to protest the cost of “dawn to dusk” school and year-round school. Perhaps some of the cost could be handled by enrolling volunteers. One of the most rewarding experiences of my life was as a volunteer tutor. I have no formal training in teaching and had only previously taught adults (job training). I tutored a young boy who had been in school for four years and had a reading vocabulary of about 10 words (non of them were ‘the’, ‘and’ or ‘a’). After I left him, he went on to public high school and then a Community College. At the time I left him he was reading with confidence and good comprehension. One-on-one tutoring for some at risk children can be magic – for both the child and the tutor. I am sure if volunteers were actively recruited, you could find them. Volunteers would not even have to be college graduates. They do need a love and respect for children. (Hey, mothers of successful children are a prime source.)

    2. David, all of those are admirable ideas. However, you have to pay for them and the public at large already has a problem with how much is spent on public education. This is the primary reason corporations have been able to get their foot in the door and push for privatization. The government and general public have forever sought to figure out how to justify what is spent when there is no visible product being produced. It’s not like I build cars, boats, widgets or whatever.

  3. Every child should be taught a rich cohesive curriculum, from pre-K to grade 12, by a well trained well payed professional teacher. Standardized tests should be given every other year and test-prep., should forbidden. Please see “The core Knowledge Foundation Curriculum”. It is excellent!
    In addition, all pre-K and K programs must have a very strong parent training component.

    1. By and large I agree with all that is said here but, if you forbid test-prep you are going to have a child who will not advance from “start”. S/he will have been taught at home to persevere until you get the answer. (I know whereof I speak because I was such a perfectionist) All kids should be taught how to take tests. Teaching to the test is something else!

  4. North Carolina is the next to have its public school funding cut and a voucher ready for private schools!

  5. Once again, someone interested only in denying support for all children and adolescents receiving a high school education, has attempted to skew the data and prevent all kids from the opportunities that one receives from public schooling. I sincerely hope that the media, both nationally and state-wide will begin to shed light on the fallacies spewed by these “reformers.” Public education is why we go to war—to defend U. S. citizens’ democratic rights via a free public education—it is the cornerstone of democracy. Charter schools and vouchers deny these rights.

    My latest book may help us all understand the falsehoods being presented by people like Rhee and Bennett; my book is based on genuine research—Why America’s Public Schools Are the Best Place for Kids (2012) available in all formats at

  6. And so speaking toward a broad based, meaningful solution that changes the conversational tone from divisive, regarding a limited resource number, to one that represents the inclusivity of free democratic values is….?

    ….an Earth based education model, replacing the obsolete Victorian model that is the basis for painting oneself into a corner and then complaining that another is to blame for doing so.

    Human intelligence has evolved from that which preceded him on this planet. Including this knowledge into the education process is an inevitable, necessary, logical change required at Institutional level as we speak. Who better to show us that learning from history is the only way to avoid the disasters of our past than those we pay to share the hope of progress to our children?

  7. As a teacher from Florida, this nonsense has been going on for some 15 years now. Ask your kids to reach for the top and when they begin to approach the top, you move it higher and tell them they aren’t getting it and it must be the schools and the teachers.
    This is about the $6,000+ per student that is spent on education and who is getting their pockets lined. If we as educators produced a visible product as evidence of where the money was going, this conversation wouldn’t be taking place.
    The flaw is not that we need some measure of student performance, it’s that we don’t understand the concept that 100% of our kids are NOT going to college, I don’t care what you do. By the numbers, only about 25%+/- of high school graduates ever attend college and less than that graduate. What have we done with the other 75%? We have turned them out into an ever changing world and expect them to contribute. Education must change it’s vision and move toward separating our kids into different tracks of education. One is the obvious academic track and the other vocational/technical. If one takes the 25% off the top as the ones we know are going to attend, there is possible another 15% that COULD go, but just don’t have the right motivation. By creating these tracks, the parents who think their kids should go to college but have never been involved in making sure they get there, would now get involved to see that it happens. Now you have 40% getting rigorous academics, while the academics the 60% receive are strictly those needed for their vocational or technical course. Combine these academics with internship/apprenticeship and now you send 60% of your high school graduates into the workplace with the immediate ability to actively participate in the workforce in a meaningful way. Obviously, this is a generalized view. Having worked in education for 18 years now, and having done so teaching from the adult level in our prison system to drop-out prevention and regular Social Sciences in high school, I believe that if we want the best for ALL of our students we must change how we view the (end)game of education.

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